Why We Walk
As the Thru Hiking class of 2022 gets underway on the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to complete a thru-hike.
This is the season for articles and podcasts on proper training, gear recommendations, planning resupply boxes, what to expect, navigation, etc.
Being equipped with the tried and true knowledge that is passed down by the thru-hikers who came before you is essential to be on the path for success.
However, the reality of thru-hiking is no matter how great your gear is, how prepared you think you are for what the trail will throw at you, how well you’ve planned each resupply, & how deep your pockets are for unexpected expenses, you will have to dig deep. Often.
Everything will hurt. You will be exhausted. You will be dehydrated. You will be hot. You will be cold. You will have blisters. Your shoulders will hurt. Your knees will ache. You’ll limp out of your tent in the morning and wonder how in the world you’re going to hike 20+ miles that day. You’ll miss your loved ones. You’ll miss the comforts of society, regularly. You’ll trek thru the rain, snow, mud, and you’ll cross ice cold water in the early morning. You’ll climb over fallen trees over and over with a full pack on your back. You’ll duck thunderstorms and think about what will happen if you come face to face with a large bear or mountain lion.
You’ll have hundreds or thousands of miles of this in front of you and the reality is if you don’t know why you’re really out there, you’ll probably quit. For example, as many as 80% of people who attempt to thru-hike the AT, never make it. Why? Well as the miles take their toll on your body, you’ll question why you’re out there repeatedly, and if you don’t have a strong enough answer, those questions in your brain get louder and louder as you walk.
I’ve seen sponsored, seasoned thru-hikers with ultralight gear quit a trail when you think they’re going to crush it. Meanwhile, the guy or gal with no thru-hiking experience (who everybody is rooting for but nobody would be shocked if they quit) walks from Mexico to Canada with a pack so heavy that you wouldn’t want to walk one mile with it. Why? How?
Their Why was strong.
I met a CDT hiker named ‘Cot’ in the Red Desert just outside of Rawlins. He had a pack that made the 40lb pack I started the Colorado Trail with look like a daypack.
My buddy Iron Lung and I had set up camp for the night near our only water source for many miles when Cot had caught up with us and asked if he could camp with us.
He set up his tent and it looked like a tent that car campers would use for a family of four. I was shocked at how cheap & heavy his entire setup was. It was definitely not a typical thru-hiker setup, but it was his setup and he had come so far with it.
Cot told us he had gotten his trail name ‘Cot’ because he started the CDT by sleeping in an actual Cot. You’ve heard of Ultralight? Well Cot was Ultraheavy. In fact, his pack was 75lbs when he started the CDT. (Not including water!) He eventually made changes and dropped the Cot and other items to get his pack to the 40lb range which is still HEAVY for most thru-hikers. What’s crazier is Cot had never even been camping once in his life before he started at the southern terminus of the CDT. Honestly if I hadn’t met Cot and seen it with my own eyes, I probably wouldn’t have believed it.
So how does someone with a 75lb pack and no camping, backpacking, legit hiking experience, walk almost 3,000 miles thru the most remote and rugged part of the country?
Cot was this hiker so I asked him because he impressed the hell out of me.
For Cot, there were layers to it. I think a lot of first time thru-hikers can relate to that. He wanted to connect with God and felt in nature that he would feel his presence the most. I asked another thru-hiker named ‘Old Timer’ about his why and what kept him going; he said something similar about what he used to keep going, “I woke up every morning and prayed to god for the strength to keep me going everyday.” Old Timer is a Triple Crowner (Thru hiked the AT, PCT, and CDT) after the age of 60 so his why was strong and never felt he was alone out there even when he was alone.
Cot also mentioned he worked in retail and there was a specific moment when he was getting cussed out by an unruly customer that he felt the desire to find something to like about the country again. Seeing nature in all of its beauty and meeting many people in the wonderful thru-hiking community can definitely satisfy that desire.
Having said all of that, there were two things that Cot said that really really spoke to me:
The CDT has a saying that goes, “Embrace the Brutality.” It’s the anthem of the CDT – Theme music for the hikers if you will. Cot’s exact quote was, “Get out and embrace it in all of its misery and wonder.”
Furthermore, Cot answered the question of why he was walking all that way with another question, “What are you going back to when you quit?”
For many people who are very happy with their life back home, this might not be the question to ask. In fact, this might be all the more reason to go home when the going gets tough. For me, I felt these same vibes on the CT and on the CDT.
2020 was supposed to be my year. I had planned to relocate to California for my company and was so excited about the fresh start in a new place with endless possibilities. The pandemic turned my life upside down within a matter of weeks and I was lost. I was at the lowest point of my life and the Colorado Trail was my way to escape all the nonsense and do something big. After being dealt one loss after another, thru-hiking the CT was a way to get back on the winning side. I loved the outdoors but had never been submerged in nature to this degree.
I was physically ready and mentally tough but I still wasn’t quite ready. I made many mistakes as a first-time thru-hiker and I was in a lot of pain everyday for the first 2 weeks. My pack was far too heavy, I had the wrong shoes, I didn’t have a stove, I had blisters on blisters, knee pain, aching shoulders every mile of every day, restless nights, etc.
I thought about quitting, often, but that would mean another loss & I couldn’t wrap my head around another failure. What was I going back to? Another failure to sit around the house and dwell on? Not a chance.
Every failure the pandemic threw at me was out of my control, but this journey was in my control so I continued to make adjustments to my pack and shoes. Finally, as I stopped in Buena Vista for a double zero on my birthday weekend, I found a pair of Altra Lone Peak trail runners and absolutely loved the 2nd half of the Colorado Trail – the San Juan’s. As I got to the end, I couldn’t believe that I actually had contemplated quitting at one point. I felt different and so strong.
I loved it so much that I decided to thru-hike the CDT the following summer. I had planned to leave for the CDT in early April. What would happen next was like a bad dream that I never woke up from. I really hurt my back training and was laying in bed when I got that nightmare phone call that my dear friend was found dead. Between my back and the grief, I couldn’t see getting on trail to do the hike despite my plans. Casey Darlow was his name. He was a great friend and like a brother to me. In fact, he was instrumental in lifting me back up in 2020 – in many ways – when I hit rock bottom, but none bigger than telling me that I was going to crush it on the Colorado trail.
I reminisced a lot about when I had 75 miles to go on the CT and had a phone call with Casey on top of a mountain when I had service. I told him I was going to finish the last 75 miles in three days and he told me how proud of me he was that I had walked all that way and was now doing consecutive 25 mile days. I was crushing it as he knew I would.
Casey was such a big part of helping me complete the Colorado Trail that it was only fitting that my hike of the CDT would be a tribute to him – The Casey Darlow Trek. On the CDT, Casey was my Why. As stress fractures in my legs took me off trail for 6 weeks, I did everything in my power to get back on trail and spread his ashes in northern Colorado near Steamboat, the Wind River Range in Wyoming, & Glacier in Montana. Through my why, I found a way to battle through injuries and still walk over 1500 miles on the CDT. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” He’s my reason for getting back on trail to finish the hike this April despite my life being great back home now to the point that I do have a lot to come home to when I feel the urge to quit.
My Why is the Casey Darlow Trek… it’s why I’ll keep going when I want to stop.
Whether your why is to do something big, connect with god, find yourself, be fully submerged in nature, restore your faith in humanity, escape the rat race of society, prove to yourself that you can, have the adventure of a lifetime, or simply walk over 2,000 miles from one postcard worthy location to the next, your why is the most important item you can carry in your pack.
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I love your pictures that you post of all the beautiful sceneries that you have seen, but most of all, I love the tribute to Casey. What an honor. I k or he was like a brother to you and he’d be so proud of this tribute.
Enjoy every step you take and sight you see. It’s am amazing opportunity that you are able to accomplish this.
I can’t wait to continue to read you blog.